Saturday, September 29, 2007

94. The Lesson for Today

The United Nations has recently adopted an important declaration regarding indigenous rights, which Peter Jones is now discussing on his blog. I've gone through this declaration with some care, but before commenting I want to read more of what Peter has to say.

To continue with my "lesson" list from the previous post, I'll summarize the two already presented and then add some more:

1. We need to recognize that indigenous traditions are important for the human race in general, as they are part of a heritage in which we all share. (It should go without saying, by the way, that "our" share in this heritage does not give any single group, nation or business the right to appropriate for its own gain the cultural or intellectual property of any other group.)

2. The protection of indigenous culture need not be an all or nothing proposition. While certain types of change may be inevitable and/or irreversible others are not.

3. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists tend to cringe at the very thought of "natives" being "trotted out" to perform traditional rituals, dances, etc. for "tourists." Yet we have no problem with all the many tourists flocking into places like New York City or London to partake of characteristically "western" rituals, such as the performance of a play, an opera or a symphony, in which our own "native" artists are "trotted out" for the benefit of anyone with the price of admission. This is yet another example of the double standard I've been discussing. Wherever such performances can enhance the status of indigenous culture, not to mention provide income for indigenous people, they should, as I see it, be encouraged, not disparaged. Anthropologists, ethnomusicologsts and folklorists can make themselves useful by lending their expertise and influence to ensure that such performances are presented in as authentic, meaningful and serious a manner as possible.

4. The worldwide popularity of so many aspects of American culture cannot be dissociated from its role as a global media hub. Yet the importance of the media is rarely considered by those who lament the passing of traditional culture and values. Young people all over the world are profoundly influenced by what's presented to them on radio, television and film (the Internet is a more complex matter that I'll be discussing shortly). If all they see and hear is either western or western influenced, then it's not difficult to understand why they are currently questioning or even belittling their own traditions. The message is all too clear (if mostly subliminal): "This is the voice of the power structure -- if you want to be hip, cool and with it, this is what you must learn to love, this is what you must want to have." Things have gotten so bad in this respect that even when non-western cultures are being depicted, it is usually to patently western style music, usually either rock or classical, with a dollop of occasional bongo drumming to add a bit of "authenticity."

Alan Lomax lobbied hard for an opening of all media to local culture on a regular basis, in the belief that the programming of traditional arts, rituals, crafts, skills and ideas could go a long way toward breaking the global stranglehold of western tastes and values. As a collector, author, broadcaster, record producer, and film documenter, he was well aware of the potential of the various media to alter perspectives and change minds. His own use of the media to spread awareness and appreciation of American traditions had met with enormous success, as is now well understood and appreciated by serious students of folk music, protest music, blues, gospel, country, bluegrass, etc., even rock.

The lesson he learned was the lesson we should all take to heart: when people feel that their traditions are taken seriously by knowledgeable outsiders, they -- and their children -- will take these traditions more seriously as well; when they see and/or hear themselves and their compatriots on the local television, radio, etc., and find themselves turning into local celebrities as a result, the resulting prestige can change everything. On the other hand, when authoritative anthropologists and ethnomusicologists throw up their hands to exclaim that all is hopeless, that "change" is inevitable; when more attention is paid, as is now increasingly common among ethnomusicologists, to the often pathetic efforts of their children to use popular genres such as rock or country music as a catapult to instant fame and fortune; then any hope for the survival of once vital traditions based on centuries of accumulated creativity, imagination, knowledge and wisdom can be forever lost.

5. Not only local but also national media can also make a huge difference, either positive or negative. For a great many years now, public and/or "educational" television has been presenting a long series of always fascinating, but all too often predictable, "nature" programs. The underlying message in almost every case is how "man" is destroying the balance of nature, polluting the wilderness, butchering the wildlife and generally desecrating the planet. While this is indeed a message that we in the developed world should certainly take to heart, the "villains" being portrayed in these documentaries are all too often the local indigenous peoples, whose desperate efforts at survival are typically characterized as "poaching." We hardly ever actually see any of the locals in these shows, but the "insidious" effects of their actions are a constantly recurring theme.

What we hardly ever see on television are programs documenting the lives of the "poachers" who are causing all this grief. And I'm wondering why that is. If PBS and other networks devoted to educational programming would spend more of an effort on the documentation of traditional cultures round the world, so that indigenous people can more often be portrayed in a positive light, in terms of their many impressive acheivements, that could make an enormous difference, for them, their children and our own.

6. With respect to the above situation, one has to wonder why it is that so many animal species are given special status as "endangered," with concomitant efforts at protection, while so many indigenous peoples are literally being tossed to the wolves (of globalization), with hardly a whisper of concern. An especially disturbing example of what can happen when government authorities are convinced by well meaning but naive organizations to passively and unthinkingly follow the wisdom of the day, is the story of what happened to the pygmies of Uganda, kicked out of their own ancestral territories as part of an effort to protect a relatively small group of endangered gorillas.

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